The Canadian Art Database

William Wood

Three Theses On Jeff Wall [1984]
Transparencies at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, May 9 - June 24
and in an expanded version of the exhibit installed at the Basel Kunsthalle from September 24 - November 30, 1984.

C Magazine #3, Fall 1984.
[ 3,858 words ]


Baudelaire provides the preliminary model for seeing through Jeff Wall. In the Salon of 1859 he speaks of the simplistic equation of photographic exactitude with art and proceeds to describe how following that:

Strange abomination took form. By bringing together a group of male and female clowns, got up like butchers and laundry maids — at a carnival, and by begging these heroes to be so kind as to hold their chance grimaces for the time necessary for the performance, the operator flattered himself that he was reproducing tragic or elegant scenes from ancient history. Some democratic writer ought to have seen here a cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people, thus committing a double sacrilege and insulting at the same time the divine art of painting and the noble art of the actor. (1) 

What is significant about this, besides its faithful description of the photographer as administrative operator, is the thought that exact reproduction combined with staged tableaux would engender loathing, for this mix of the actual and the fantastic is certainly at work in Wall's cibachrome transparencies. The scale of the work is virtually life-size and the transparency is supreme illusion. Backlit by fluorescence and projected upon the spectator, (2)  the imperious optical authority of the large format camera and the outsized radiant image produce an unsettling, quivering fidelity, an estranged and histrionic representation of fraudulent desire, illusory experience. Through this veil Wall directs us to the site of the 'loathsome' using figures in contemporary dress to allude to art history, using the still tableaux to represent the elaborate staging of modern life. This volatile mix of apparatus, appropriation and theatre is a vehicle for implying that Baudelaire's greatest fear — that the mating of art and industry would exile imagination — that this dread event has already happened through late capitalism's mechanization of meaning. Such works as Wall's fractured signs brought together by a homogenous technology are the harsh products of industrial culture. However, as a revisionist modernist, Wall does not merely long for the regime of the imagination or loathe painting as such; rather, he joins Baudelaire and laments the hegemonic development of the culture industry, but also sees the divinity of painting and the nobility of acting as an instrument of that industry's ideological production.

Baudelaire's estimation of art's superiority was predicated on Poe's calm assertion that 'it is a happiness to dream', (3)  but his notion of the dream is predicated on a concept of privilege and expertise. Notice how he marks out an antagonism between the camera's subjects and any other group they might belong to: they are clowns and not actors, they are performers and not butchers or laundry maids, and most of all, they do not labour. Required neither to move and speak like the actor, nor to sit still for long periods like the model, they are underemployed in an image economy based upon invested time and skill. Inexpert and unprivileged, they have their specific 'chance grimaces' recorded, but, for Baudelaire, they are now particularly alienated for they have no identity other than that grimace and no connection with the elegance or tragedy of history. Seen as allegorical ciphers for Baudelaire's sense of the psychic vacuity of the modern world, they are antagonists because they are implacable in a universe peopled with heroes and dreams, a world coded through an aristocracy of skill.

However, seen against another judgment of dreaming, Marx's contention that 'the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,' (4)  these anonymous subjects become agonistic. That is they become the stuff of the heroic because they are struggling against the weight of tradition, against the weight of being the unidentified products of an opaque economy. For Wall, groups of these heroes are Young Workers, their portraits raised to privileged heights in the gallery and given the weight of their condition through the spectators' uncertain idolatry before their wonderful glow. The images provoke uncertain devotion because the workers are posed as standard 'heroes' gazing towards a triumphant future. Thus they play off Baudelaire's recognition that abominations would result from the meeting of modern faces and classic poses. This is wonderful for the format of the icon meets an actual face and the wall poster's repetition of the abstract proletariat becomes a series of specific heads in three-quarter profile. But the actuality of the face, and the specificity of the head are not to be equated with an individuality of the subject. Instead, the repeated pose subsumes individuality and makes all variants aspects of a code rather than expressions of character. Additionally, the singular gesture of looking up is enforced upon the viewer much as it is upon the subjects of the pose. Any close at level projection is cancelled by the installation, any empathy is denied by the coded representation. No, it is not our intimacy with working or with history that is demonstrated in the work — it is distance that is marked out. The distance of the workers from the ideal heroes, their distance from a realized identity as the meaning of the class struggle and the distant manipulation of pictorial codes required to represent their alienation from elegant histories.

The process of the portraits is dialectical, for while the workers are mythologised into heroes by the adopted pose, the pose is demythologised by the actual appearance of the subjects and by the self-consciousness of the spectator. We see the images as authorized mechanisms operating on our knowledge of codes as we recognize the connotation of heroism in the pose, but authority is also present in the enforced stance of viewing. We adopt the pose of the subjects and, like them, receive a position in relation to an identity rather than an identity itself. This choreographed reception denies the strict function of the coded pose, but a residue of meaning remains in the acknowledgement that the portrait subjects live without the coded schemes of aristocratic heroism. It is not that the classic pose reveals the mean determination of the subjects, as Baudelaire implied of the clowns. Instead it becomes clear that the workers possess a meaning that is not determined by the standard codes, just as in Marx's original formulation it is the lack of codification through political representation in civil society that determines the proletariat's revolutionary role. (5)  Because they do not possess a history that is coded and because they are not fixated on narrow interests the workers can assume the mission to abolish all codes.

Wall reiterates this thesis in pictorial terms, although he ends up doing it twice. There are two versions of Young Workers. The second version, executed this year, differs in several elements from the 1978 version. In number the later version features eight workers, four women and four men, while the earlier portrayed four figures, three men and a woman. While the 1978 version showed Caucasian subjects, the 1984 version displays a number of racial groups. Lastly the early group looked but slightly upward and with eyes towards the right; the later revision accentuates the height of the gaze and is symbolically foregrounded as the future is sighted with heads aimed to the left. All these alterations highlight the existing differences of sex, race and politics that cannot comfortably be slotted into the myth of the heroic male conqueror. These differences, however, serve as determining factors in the constitution of the workforce and form the grounds for its wholesale exploitation through racism, sexism and capitalism. In the second version Wall has refined the concept of the subject beyond coding and expanded the specific conditions of the workers' plight to aggravate the dysfunctioning code of the heroic. Heroism is shown as negative, a sheer misrepresentation of a struggle that seeks to eliminate the differences employed in exploitative subjection.


Back with Baudelaire it is proper to ask whether Wall's portrayed heroes do indeed promote a loathing for history and painting. Baudelaire thought that the popular appeal of photographic reproduction would produce loathing as a means of devaluing the dream of beauty for a public insensible to the '...most ethereal and immaterial aspects of creation.' (6)  Both versions of Young Workers are certainly not concerned with beauty, but their exposure of ideological coding is ethereal in its disruption of heroic discourse. That this work can be both anti-aesthetic and ethereal is an option unforeseen by Baudelaire, but he also could not foresee how feeble an issue beauty would become in a society permeated with exploitation, nor how painting could become an institution of so little public meaning as to be worth loathing. Photographic manipulation of pictorial codes aided in demolishing the painter's happiness in dreaming and the insular dreamscape of perspectival space, but, as Wall has pointed out, (7)  this was an aspect of a major shift in social production and not an isolated attack on the ethereal. If anything, photography, cinema and other reproductive technologies have multiplied the immaterial illusions of ideology, surrounding the subject with visions of fetishistic gratification and inflating the region of the imaginary. But the end of this multiplication was not aesthetic, it was commercial. The imaginary spectacle is a diversion from the actual; it acts to cover and deny the material basis of commodity production. Much as Baudelaire did not want clowns to substitute for historical figures because their origins defied his notions of how art and history were produced, so the plethora of images in modern society acts to cover and replace the source of wealth in the labour process with coded fetishes that falsely attribute aristocratic virtues to the consumer of the commodity. The results of this covering are social formations penetrated by the ethereal call of objects and an unconsciousness of history and painting that avoids the nasty business of loathing tarnished corpses. Within this setup the problem is not one of the heroes generating hatred against a substantial or normative force (history, painting, heroes); it is a problem of examining that unconsciousness and revealing social amnesia as the site of image production and reception.

Backpack is a probe in this manner, with the title providing a conceit, for the hiker carries his pack moulded to his body like the subject embodies historical forces that propel production. In the picture the figure is a youth and, like the Young Workers, the pose and the spectator's approach construct the subject. The boy looks out, straight, level and assured at the adult viewer, his arms crossed and his weight sturdily distributed on legs posed at ease. This is a portrait pose, although the tradition indicated is that of the reproduction of a character rather than the representation of heroic virtue. Again an equivalent stature is implied as the youth regards the viewer in a normal viewing stance, but his character is somewhat closed off. The direct gaze implies an equal meeting, a certain revealing of character, but the child is poker faced, cold, ambiguous. If there is a character reproduced here its major components are arrogance and self-sufficiency. If we look away to examine the surroundings and accessories of the figure — searching for traces of character — we find further ambiguity. There is a grey, undifferentiated wall behind the figure that absorbs the light that brightly reflects off the figure and returns us to his foreground presence. He is dressed for sport: red and white t-shirt and socks, white shorts with blue stripes and training shoes. A basic leisure uniform replete with corporate badges is rounded off with a full sized backpack carefully zippered and strapped to his young frame. A soldier of leisure, a boy of action. A primary reading would resolve the ambiguity in the notations of action and match the direct presentation with the direct purpose of hiking and the direct gaze of the character. The backpacker would be a complete image of purposeful action, a being defined by activity.

What is ignored in this reading is the fundamental status of the backpacker as a child. His self-sufficiency is subsequent to his dependence upon adult society. He garners his character from his imitation of adult arrogance and his activity from the products of adult industry. Even the implied activity is mimetic as the hiker pretends to explore a world that others have cleared and charted, his leisure being a return to a worked upon region and not an original trek. Wall, always capable of pretense, returns to a worked upon image of the child and borrows his colours and forward staging from Manet's The Fifer and the steadfast pose from portraits of crown princes. These models portray the child as the product of the institutions of army and state to effectively define the subject as dependent upon his potential as an adult, his utility to adult organizations. Wall follows suit with his backpacker displayed as a complex of influences, defined through leisure with its militarist overtones and consumerism with its cloying attributions. As the borrowed models of portraiture suggest, character cannot be staged from without this nexus and Wall permits no alternate site for a secret realized self. Thus the staging of character is restricted and the penetration afforded the spectator is similarly cut off, both confined to being insubstantial.

This sense of confinement is an example of the intense order of denial in Wall's work. The dual refusal in Backpack where character is not permitted to display itself denies completion to both subject and spectator. Neither is allowed to escape into a transcendental state to resolve definition by, say, intimating that the child's arrogance is an immature overcompensation or a serious skillful accomplishment. Instead the stress is upon the inadequacy of an explanation that assumes completion, which respects notions of individuality and which requires an aesthetic of secured transcendence. This denial extends to the role of the artist in the work as Wall presents himself as operating within the coded structure of art history and his tableaux emphasizes a deliberate disciplined staging over spontaneous expression and elevates the objective and mechanical over manual or personal presence. Refusing transcendence, displacing personality and stressing mechanics, these qualities reflect established modernist practice but in a particular manner. Denial and determination fragment the image by turning away from the illusion of the fetish with its guarantee of gratification, its aura of authentic meaning. In place of this secured transaction of image and significance a frustration is produced which damages acquiescent reception. Actual conditions of frustration and determination are evoked and made concrete in the encounter. The spectator is prodded to recognize the confinement of the image, its historical formation and its status as a product opposed to consumption. In the end the pictorial fact denies the fetishism surrounding the spectacle and iconoclasm replaces idolatry.


The destructive character stands in the frontline of the traditionalists. Some pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them, others pass on situations, by making them practible and thus liquidating them. The latter are called destructive.  (8) 

Walter Benjamin was perhaps overstating the case in the above quote, at least if we want to find a successfully liquidated tradition. The avant-garde wear his words as their halo, but their destruction has given way to deconstruction with its precious nihilism and academic melancholy. Reaction has set in as well, with neoconservative aesthetics and a 'new' subjectivity that trots out the untouchable act of expression and the bogey of alienation. The latter clearly partake of the allure of the fetish with their claim to magical resolution through gesture and presence, while the former spin allegories of absence and mourn the inability to match sign with meaning. Wall, headstrong, of neither camp, is a rigorous practitioner of what might lie between these parodies of modernist strategy. He insists that there are meaningful pictures to be made without endless deferral through allegory or dramatic self-definition. Meaning is contained in the 'passed on' situation, in the transposition of influence, in the historical roots of modernism. But those roots must be assessed for their progressive context as well as being revised for a culture that has made modern art into a consumable object transcendent as a formal institution. The use of the cibachrome transparency with its 'acculturation' of the mass culture spectacles of advertising, cinema and television is one aspect of the revision because the transparency is as active, hollow and technically slick as the society around it. But technical novelty is symptomatic of the cyclical redundancy of modernism — it alone cannot liquidate tradition. What is needed is strategic advance and Wall has practised pastiche to achieve this broader objective.

Pastiche is an advance because it breaks the symbiotic relation found in parody. Parody implies an effective vehicle to satirize along with norms to debase. 9)  As a parody Manet's Olympia drew on the idealist exposure of the passive female in the salon nude and related it to the narrow, tactile exchange between whore and client, canvas and viewer. Manet did not liquidate the nude for the public, rather he isolated a dimension of its immanence in the practice of prostitution and brought out a metaphorical likeness between the salon and the brothel. Such is parody with its basic elements of malicious laughter and envious irony. It is a good joke requiring a substantial butt to be effective. Wall's two-panel picture Stereo is no joke, is exceptional in its humourlessness. In the left panel instead of a nude we receive suggestions of the style of the nude. The figure is relaxed, propped up like Olympia on a red couch with genitals visible and distant from our voyeurism gazing off into space captivated by the sound from a pair of headphones. This is a figure altogether exposed for our projective seduction. Yet is cannot be a nude for it is a naked man on the couch and this sexual difference freezes the stylistic implications. There is no goading — Wall does not make him exotic or leering. Rather the tawdry is made militant in details. There is a stain on the couch and the model's face is vacuous and absorbed with limpid eyes and an insipid beauty mark. The headphones are heavy blocks resembling the blinders on horses and the man threads through his fingers the umbilical cord carrying the electrified sound as if to caress the source of his pleasure. And that pleasure mocks our expectation of pleasure for his absorption is recorded while ours is denied, his is continuous while ours is busted up. The matching panel serves to caption his pleasure, spelling out his stereophonic absorption, underlining his stereotypical nakedness and fulfilling the concept of the stereoscopic pastiche.

The principle of the stereoscope is the provision of a dimensional image simulating solidity, much as stereophonic sound simulates spatial reception of live music. Wall interrupts the dimensional projection of the nude and truncates his caption into a polyvalent root. The possibility of voyeurism is removed, the reception is made ludicrous with malice or irony — there is no substantive referent, only the mutant nude and the meretricious interior and the spectator's sense of the perverse. All components of the encounter are crippled and this makes the situation liquid. Wall drains off the investment formed round the projection of the voyeur without being immediately dependent upon a specific type or source for the debasement. Pastiche operates in this wholesale manner taking the puerile acceptance of a format and rendering it incompetent to deliver any message. There is no resort to laughter, merely a harsh assertion. But that harshness is the insistent vitality of pastiche as a destroying instrument. While parody serves to criticize, pastiche assumes the practice of destroying the moribund illusion. Pastiche takes the solid acceptance and makes it a hollow cell of confinement.

Harsh, hollow, petulant are all fitting words for this incessantly denying and fractured process of pastiche. What it accomplishes is an art which does not practice, prattle or banter. It has the authority of a concise refutation clothed in the guise of an advertisement; a light come-on to a dizzy blow. The best instance of this is Woman and Her Doctor, for the doctor is the spectator of the constructed subject. He sits with an inquiring gaze, stiff with objectivity, perhaps puzzled by her distant attitude. One could read the details endlessly: the cold shoulder she gives him, the display of cleavage, the seductive avoidance she appears to practise. Finally, however, it is clear that the meaning of the enigmatic construction of the patient is simply the attention received. There is no revelation, only positions and symptoms and exchanges. The earnest doctor is a cipher as well, withdrawn into his clinical regard and somehow unable to cure or even effect an adequate relation. We are dealing with a schizophrenic image, with delusions and disorders deep in the structure of pictures and reception. To our disease we are the doctor attending to our undoing. It cannot be closed off or the entire system of glances, readings and formulations would be inoperable. That is the coldest core of Wall's work with all its systematic rigour and inclusive influences. It plays at being a fetish and ends up being an emblem of decay.

C Magazine #3, Fall 1984.

Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.

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